Of 42 samples from the likes of McDonalds, KFC, Subway or Dunkin Donuts that were sent for analysis, 32 contained at least one of the highly persistent group of chemicals, linked to serious health conditions including cancer. The exact forms present could not be identified.
In the UK, bakery, fries and sandwich greaseproof bags from McDonald’s, Subway, Pret A Manger, Greggs and the Co-op were analysed, alongside pizza boxes from Papa John’s, Domino’s and Pizza Hut. PFAS was found in all of them.
A study published by Scottish environmental body Fidra last year found similar results from packaging used by major supermarkets, coffee shop chains and takeaways.
PFAS poisoning: Why is so little known about the presence of ‘forever chemicals’ in UK drinking water?
However, “PFAS pollution is so ubiquitous that we found PFAS even in products which have not been intentionally treated with these chemicals. The same PFAS contaminants have been found in the Arctic air, snow and wildlife. Every year of delay in regulating this group of ‘forever chemicals’ increases the pollution burden for future generations of people and wildlife. A ban on all non-essential uses of PFAS chemicals should be urgently implemented,” said CHEM Trust PFAS campaigner Julie Schneider.
Earlier this year, DEFRA claimed that the UK is making “good progress” on PFAS pollution, despite there being no regular testing of drinking water. Scottish Water data has identified high levels in sewage effluent. The chemicals are in line to be phased out, under the UK REACH programme and the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.
By definition, single-use packaging is thrown away immediately after use, and is produced in huge volumes. It therefore creates a large amount of waste, with the PFAS liable to pollute drinking water and accumulate through the food chain. But the greatest threat may come from simply rubbing off into food and being consumed directly.
“It is high time for the European Union to act and immediately and permanently ban the entire class of PFAS in food packaging, to protect the consumers in the first place. It is clearly not essential to use highly toxic and persistent chemicals, posing such a serious health and environmental risk, in throw-away food packaging, especially when there are safer alternatives,” says Jitka Strakova, the main author of the study and science advisor to the International Pollutants Elimination Network’s central and eastern European hub, Arnika.
A total of 38 of 99 samples of food packaging and tableware made of paper, board and moulded plant fibre bought in the UK, Denmark, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic between May and December 2020 were suspected of being treated with PFAS. They included bakery bags and take-away boxes.
The 42 chosen for analysis were tested for their total organic fluorine content, a proxy for the presence of PFAS, and for 55 specific forms of it. But less than 1% could be assigned to a specific form, so almost all of it remains unidentified.
“When Europe's stated objective is zero pollution for a non-toxic environment, we cannot accept that food packaging disposed of within a matter of minutes is treated with chemicals that persist and accumulate in the environment and are increasingly being associated with severe health impacts. The large European PFAS restriction under development is a once-in-a-century opportunity to address such uses and work towards phasing out the production and uses of PFAS, wherever they are unnecessary and it is possible,” said Natacha Cingotti, health and chemicals lead at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), which participated in the study.
The use of so-called ‘forever chemicals’ in paper and board food packaging has been banned in Denmark for almost a year. The study found that McDonald’s French fries bags bought there were PFAS-free, though this was not the case in the UK or Czechia.
“This shows that legislation can and does protect people from exposure to harmful chemicals. It also highlights that the lack of EU-wide harmonised regulations for food contact materials results in different levels of protection across countries,” said a statement from HEAL.
In some cases, the amount of total organic fluorine was up to 60 times greater than the threshold value used by Denmark to assess if PFAS has been added deliberately.
The NGOs have called on the EU member states currently working on a REACH restriction for PFAS to include all non-essential uses, particularly in food contact materials, and for the European Commission to outline what ‘non-essential’ means. More broadly, companies should phase out the chemicals ahead of any formal ban, and a worldwide prohibition under the Stockholm Convention should be promulgated.
Cathryn Higgs, head of policy at Co-op said: “Co-op is committed to designing own-brand products with quality, sustainability and health in front of mind, ensuring our packaging is created in a responsible way. We are actively working on how to remove PFAS from the very small number of own-brand products affected.”
McDonalds said that it plans to remove all fluorochemicals from its packaging globally by 2025, and is “working hard to beat” that ambition. A “significant subset” of PFAS was removed in 2008, said a spokesperson.